Kirsten Haglund, a Walled Lake Western High School graduate, has accomplished quite a bit in her 23 years of life. She has battled anorexia, raised awareness about eating disorders, and has started her own foundation to help others cope with eating disorders. She won the Miss America Pageant in 2008, lived all over the country, and attended the inaugural ball for President Barack Obama. She has served as a contributor on Sean Hannity’s show on the Fox News Channel and recorded an EP that is available on iTunes. She has been a role model to little girls all over the country. Since her reign as Miss America in 2008, Haglund has been involved in numerous projects and worked with several non-profit organizations. Now, Haglund is working towards adding another accomplishment to her resume — college graduate. She is currently studying political science at Emory University in Atlanta but found time to catch up with the Spinal Column Newsweekly on life after Miss America.
You recently returned to your alma mater, Walled Lake Western, to sing the national anthem before the Warriors’ football game on Oct. 14 supporting breast cancer awareness. What was it like for you to come home and be a part of that event? What activities were you involved in as a student at Western?
KH: It was a real blast, especially since breast cancer awareness is something close to my heart because my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 12. She has since recovered. She is cancer-free. It’s something I really support and really care about. So it was super fun, and not only because it is a great cause but, of course, it was great to see all my friends and people that I love at Western.
I did the musical all four years. I was involved in choir, as well as forensics. Obviously, I was actually a real nerd in school. I had my nose in the books all the time. But also participated in Spirit Week activities every year throughout high school, prom committee and fashion show, all that good stuff.
You also recently spoke to female students at Waterford Mott High School about eating disorders. What was your message to the students?
KH: (The message) was mostly that, as girl, it’s really, really a tough time to be in high school. You are facing a lot of peer pressure and a lot of people telling you what you have to do, how you have to do it, and that you have to be perfect basically in order to do anything in life. My basic message to them was that you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be the best. You don’t have to be the thinnest or the prettiest in order to be successful in life. That everyone has unique abilities and gifts to offer this world, and that being you, who you are, is enough. And that beauty comes from the inside. So that was my main message.
You also started the Kirsten Haglund Foundation to raise awareness of, and provide help to, those suffering from eating disorders. You said that it came from your own battle with an eating disorder. Could you please explain what you fought and how you overcame it?
KH: Oh boy, I need a lot longer than a minute to do that. I basically struggled with anorexia. I started struggling when I was about 12-years-old, and it was largely due to my involvement in ballet where I thought I had to be this very, very thin ideal in order to be successful. I was also highly perfectionistic and had very low self-esteem when I thought that I wouldn’t be able to dance professionally if I wasn’t thin enough. So I was just very critical of my body and just held myself to very, very high standards. That was basically kind of the set up for what I struggled with, and to me the answer was being thin. So I started to severely diet and restrict my calorie intake and (began to) over-exercise. And three years later, found myself a shell of a person, just in very, very poor health obviously on the point of starvation. And my parents finally realized something was wrong and drove me to the doctor.
Of course, I didn’t want to go. I thought the doctor was just trying to make me fat, which was not the case at all. I eventually, after deciding to comply with treatment, two years later found myself at a healthy weight and a healthy place emotionally, as well. And I just really had to practice thinking the right way about myself and the gifts I had to offer the world. I had to quit ballet because it was an unhealthy environment for me, and I really just had to own the fact that I was worth so much more than what I looked like or what shape or what size that I was, that as a woman I was worth more than that, and beauty was more than just what you see on the outside. So that was my journey, and I’m actually very thankful for it now because I have much more compassion and empathy for other people. I don’t hold people to as high of standard.
I used to be very critical of others because I was very critical of myself. But now I realize everyone has a story. Everyone goes through very difficult things in life, but it’s those things that give us strength and make us beautiful. It’s our flaws that give us strength to go on, and then give us things so that we can help other people. So I’m right now very grateful for what life has given me.
What kind of services does your foundation provide? Has the foundation become what you hoped it would when you first started it?
KH: It’s really great because we are really small. It’s basically myself and my mother and our board that really communicate with people one-on-one, to try to get them the resources they need. So we help them in a variety of ways. For the most part, we try to connect them to resources. So we network them with treatment professionals in their area. We also help them to do personal fund-raisers to pay for treatment. We also work with treatment centers to give them scholarships. These girls that apply to a scholarship and financial assistance to go to residential treatment — a more elevated level of treatment. So it’s a lot of different things. Mostly communication networking and financial assistance or scholarships for the treatment.
Absolutely (it’s where I hoped it would be when I first started it). And of course, we are always growing. We are always expanding. We are always looking for people that want to give to us and this cause and want to help women to get better. We’re so excited about the direction that we’re going, and what we wanted to do was to maintain a family-close feel to the girls that we’re helping, which we do through personal communication and that one-on-one working with each girl specific to her situation and how we can get her treatment but also making treatment a reality. We’ve sent 12 girls to treatment over the past two years, and that’s huge considering that treatment is like $2,000 a day in some places. Considering that, we feel very, very grateful with the number of people we’ve been able to help, and we’ve really seen lasting results. So we just want to keep growing and keep working, and we will. We’re attracting the right people to help us, which is good, too.
Tell us about your year of service as Miss America, such as where you lived and what projects you were involved in? What would you say were some of the perks of being Miss America and what was the best moment of your reign?
KH: I lived all over the country and traveled 20,000 miles a month. So I didn’t really live anywhere. I lived in hotel rooms. Eating disorder awareness was a huge part of what I did during the year. I was also National Goodwill Ambassador for the Children’s Miracle Network. So I visited a lot of children’s hospitals and helped in a lot of their fund-raisers and media campaigns. Also what was really neat was that I got to work with a lot of with the USO — the United Service Organization — to do a lot with our military. I laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, participated in the inaugural events around the inauguration of Barack Obama. I got to attend the inaugural ball. I mean, just a lot of really amazing things with our soldiers, our troops. I visited a lot of them in the hospital, veterans’ hospitals, and all that which is really important to me, as well.
It’s so hard because there were so many amazing moments because having one-on-one time with a 6- or 7-year-old girl, investing in her life, that’s really important. But also speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on eating disorders is also really huge and exciting. So, it’s hard to say one thing. But I will say that probably being at the inauguration of President Obama was pretty cool just because it was a hugely historic event, and I love Washington. I love politics. So to see all that happen and all the people that were there to celebrate that. I mean that was just pretty influential. Whether you agree with his politics or not, it was just a pretty interesting and monumental time. So I would say that was the highlight.
We also understand that you sometimes serve as a contributor on Sean Hannity’s show on the Fox News Channel. What’s it like working with Sean and debating against other guests?
KH: I love doing that show because, like I said, I love politics. I’m a political science major in school. I think it’s really important for people, especially young people. And that’s what I like about my presence there is that — I hope because I promote what I do on my Facebook and Twitter and website and everything — I want more young people to get involved in the political debate, whether you are on the right or the left. I think it’s really important for young people, especially, to have a political opinion, to educate themselves on what’s going on, and to vote. And so if I can be a part of that by being on the show, helping young people to engage in the political culture, I think that’s really great. Sean is really wonderful. Whether you, like I said, agree with his politics or not, he really is someone who’s dedicated to the truth. He is not just all about sensationalism. He really is a truthful person and trying to get the truth out there. So I really respect him and the work that he does. I love the show. And like I said, if I can get young people to engage in politics, that’s what I enjoy doing.
Being a public figure such as Miss America is also sure to also draw scrutiny from others regarding things ranging from your beliefs and politics to your behavior and body image, especially with stories of beauty pageant contestants being caught in controversy such as embarrassing photos being leaked on the Internet. How do you deal with that kind of scrutiny while still remaining secure and steadfast in who you are?
KH: Well, there really is unfortunately a lack of moral leadership and character in people in positions of leadership these days. It’s a huge responsibility, and if you are putting yourself in a public situation, you’re accepting a certain amount of responsibility for the way you conduct yourself in front of people. I take that very seriously, so I’m not the kind of person that’s about to be like, “Oh, I can do whatever I want. It’s my life.” I understand that I’m a public person, and you have to be cognizant of that. I try to just think of what I would want my future (me) seeing me doing or seeing me saying. I just try to think of it that way. I try to think of the nicest, sweetest, kindest little girl that I met during my year (as Miss America) and be like, “What would she see me doing or saying?” And you accept the position you have as a role model. When you put yourself in a public position, you have to accept that you have that responsibility. That’s really important to me, and I hold that above everything else.
Three years removed from your reign, what are your future goals and aspirations? We also understand that you released a single called “American Pride.” Tell us about the single and if you have any future plans in music, such as an album.
KH: (My goal is) to graduate college now. Honestly, I took three years off of school and worked and have continued advocacy and I really love that work. But right now, I mean, there’s also this very normal thing of, “I have to finish school.” So, I’m excited to do that. I also love non-profit work. Obviously, I do that work with my foundation. I’m also involved with an organization here in Atlanta that is involved in health in another respect. They’re building a children’s hospital in Africa in Rwanda. So that kind of global non-profit work I really love as well. I’m pretty sure my future goals will be continued involvement in non-profit work across the globe, helping to bring health resources to people, whether it be mental health or physical health resources to people. I really love serving others. That’s what gives me meaning and a sense of purpose. So whatever my future might be, because I don’t make decisions usually — things that have happened in my life that have been the greatest learning experiences and the greatest things have been things that (happened when) I didn’t plan. So I’m pretty sure my work will involve just continued work in non-profit sector, but I’m willing to see wherever life leads.
Well, actually I do have an EP that is available on iTunes, and it’s about five songs. They’re mostly patriotic and inspirational in nature. I’ve always loved the theater. As I’ve said, I was involved in musical theater all throughout my high school years and middle schools. When I started to go to college before I won Miss America, I was majoring in musical theater. I’m from a very musical family. My brother is an actor, and he lives in New York and is working on Broadway. I have that in my heart, and I love that, but the sales of my EP and that single go to my foundation. That is the way I want to use music. I don’t want to pursue it as a profession. I want to use it to raise money and hopefully bring awareness to causes that I care about.
With shows such as TLC’s “Toddlers and Tiaras,” there has recently been a backlash in the media against youth beauty pageants, saying they cause little girls to grow up too fast. What is your opinion on that? How old were you when you started competing? What advantages and disadvantages do you think you gained from your experiences?
KH: I was 17 when I competed in a pageant for the first time. I was graduating high school and looking for college scholarships. I believe that 5-, 6-, 7-years-old is far too young for girls to be competing in pageants. I don’t believe in kiddie pageants. I don’t see any value in them. I think that a girl should be at least 14 or 15 before she’s allowed to compete in a pageant. It’s way too unhealthy, developmentally, for these girls, and it’s teaching them at a young age that what they are worth is what they look like and that is just a total lie. And I think the sexualization of women at a younger and younger age is something that is a huge problem in this society. And that girls should be encouraged to do well in school and to do team sports and to do things that build them up (for) who they are in the inside and not related to what they look like on the outside. It’s like, yeah, it’s fine for a girl to go shopping or to like pretty dresses to run around the house in or whatever. But a girl should be allowed to pursue a wide variety of things and interests she’s involved in. And a mother putting her daughter in that kind of environment at a very, very young age where she is sexualized and then is also exposing her daughter to child molesters is just a really, really horrible situation. I’m very much against it, very much against kiddie pageants. That’s always been my position, and hopefully, actually the show will have a good influence in that it will show people how not-OK that behavior is.
I think one of the good things is that it really helped me to gain a thick skin because people really do say a lot of horrible things about you. You are under the microscope quite a bit, but it really helps you, like I said, to develop that thick skin. Of course, if people say negative things about your character that are true, well yeah, you’re going to learn from that and be like, “I need to change this about myself.” But when people say things about you about the outside like her nose is too big or her “this” is too fat or her hair is not long enough or blonde enough or her boobs aren’t big enough, it’s just like absolutely outrageous. And you have to really develop a sense of self and not really care about what people say about you in so far as how you look on the outside. That was good for me, and the fact that I really had to develop a sense of confidence and self-esteem that it didn’t matter what other people said about me. I was never going to please everybody. And that I really learned through doing pageants.
And one thing that is not-so-great about pageants is that, honestly, I wish we did not have a swimsuit competition. I don’t think the job as Miss America requires a swimsuit competition because I was talking to our leaders on Capitol Hill, I was speaking in front of audiences of thousands and being a businesswoman, and lobbying for sponsorship of our organization and being a representative. None of that required me to walk on a stage in a swimsuit. So if I get to see our organization evolve, it would be that we don’t have the swimsuit competition. But that would also take our culture evolving, that we don’t demand to see girls paraded around in swimsuits on stage. And, you know, the culture demands that in the same way they demand a Victoria’s Secret fashion show. There’s part of that about the culture that we’re just not going to change, but that would be one thing that I would change.